“From always being alone, I kind of lost my identity.”

“It’s like you’re part of a self-contained organism.”

“…then comes the excitement of finding the vein…”

Albert Hoffman, discoverer of LSD: “That’s why I studied chemistry, for philosophical reasons.”

Soft music and birds chirping.

Technology, possession and cinema

As I have suggested elsewhere, filming people in trance marks the limits of subjectivity and of interpersonal knowledge. In trance, people are exhibitionists, but they are also “somewhere else,” somewhere the camera cannot follow, and where the interviewer’s questions cannot lead. The spectacle of people free of inhibitions is one that filmmakers cannot resist. From Maya Deren to Bill Viola, filmmakers have been drawn to the image of the possessed body, precisely because it challenges the will to knowledge invested in the ethnographer’s gaze. To his credit, Mettler distances himself slightly from these scenes of trance, refusing the lure of the spectacle by either muting the original soundtrack or, in the case of the Indian fire ritual or the Las Vegas neon signs, abstracting it into a light show.

In Experimental Ethnography I suggested that

“the difference between possession rituals and the filming of possession rituals is precisely the inscription of technology. The spectacle of ecstasy stands in for the experience of possession.”[4]

Sound of cow sniffing the camera lens, its bell tingling.

Indian song that the actors are lip-synching to.

Lip-synching to Indian music.

“Ok, Music!”

Lip-synching to Indian music.

Mettler: “Maybe there is a difference between looking for something, and just looking, when you are a part of what you are looking at. And it looks back at you, and you look back at it.”

What is striking about Gambling, Gods and LSD is how this fall from experience is inscribed so thoroughly on every level. The handheld digital video, which is used in addition to 16mm film, is no doubt part of the explanation for this effect, as the image becomes a virtual extension of the filmmaker’s body. But equally important is the soundtrack, which is so carefully crafted. The film is itself a machine, or a vehicle, that may not take you out of your body, or out of time, but takes you into the pleasure machine of the cinema. I think that’s why it’s best watched outside, projected on a screen in the desert or in a laptop in the woods. In those conditions, one is better able to appreciate the technology behind the imagery of nature and humanity.

Alongside the landscape photography are key images and scenes of technologies. Images of broken hydro pylons and visits to Police Units in Cortez Colorado and Missile Sites in Arizona, and an inside look at Casino surveillance systems and high-tech workstations in India are part of the film’s inscription of technology. The demolition of the Aladdin theatre — another iconic image of experimental film — underlines the theme of failed dreams and left-over fantasy, of technological redundancy and high-tech overload. Technology is not to blame for the fallen world; nor is it the ticket out. And yet, technology and nature figure as the dialectical poles of transcendental experience.

The scene of the shooting of a Bollywood musical in Interlaken evokes Walter Benjamin’s discussion of the film shoot as a “hitherto unimaginable spectacle,” a second-degree realism that leads him to compare the filmmaker to a surgeon. Unlike the magician who heals by a laying on of hands, the surgeon heals by penetrating the body. Benjamin goes on to explain that it is

"another nature which speaks to the camera as compared to the eye. ‘Other’ above all in the sense that a space informed by human consciousness gives way to a space informed by the unconscious.”[5]

Bargaining in an Indian language.

People speaking an Indian language in background.

Sound of fire, Indian music.

Sound of traffic in background.

Ambient sound.

The camera introduces "unconscious optics" into the field of vision, rendering the image a "second nature", a reality that has been penetrated by a technology of desire. Benjamin's poetics are grounded in a materialist dialectic in which the body, the physis, is given a new dynamic of experience.

Miriam Hansen has recently gone back to Benjamin’s artwork essay and its multiple drafts to argue that Benjamin’s theory of cinema is premised on a notion of play. The radical ambivalence of his attitude toward film is grounded in an “anthropological materialism” in which technology and nature are brought together in the human body. But it is specifically a “collective body” or bodily collective, which is both agent and object of the human interaction with nature.”[6] Film is the technology most appropriate to what Benjamin understands as a revolutionary goal of fusing art and science; in Hansen’s terms,

“technology endows the collective with a new physis that demands to be understood and incorporated.”[7]

Chanting, Indian music.

Chanting, Indian music with slow paced electroacoustic music.

Chanting, Indian music with slow paced electroacoustic music.

“It’s the ultimate now. I don’t have to draw wires across the modules or a across the tables. Everything is self contained.”

Traffic sounds, Indian language.

Traffic sounds, Indian language.

Sound of plane and train almost at same time.

Sound of plane and electro-acoustic music (Laughter Heaven).

People laughing hysterically and electroacoustic music in background.

Laughter Heaven.

Laughter Heaven.

“I hear a voice calling from the shore…”

Low hum of boat engine.

Low hum of boat engine.

Low hum of boat engine.

To the extent that these remarks resonate in Mettler’s film, they also suggest that his project needs to be slightly reconfigured to produce the knowledge that he ostensibly seeks. While his probing camera and calculated questions — Do you fly in your dreams? Do you know love? What are you afraid of? — articulate a search, it is the film itself that answers the question of meaning, not the interviewees. In his travels, he takes the cinema into a new relation with the global collective, transcending the nature/technology divide through his various encounters. The finished film potentially resumes this travelling when the collected images are transported and translated once again by different viewers.

Writing in the 1930s, Benjamin’s concern for humanity and social change were quite different than our perspective now in the early 21st century. Gambling, Gods and LSD has nothing to say about social change. Most people in the film are looking for ways to get out of everyday life, not to change it. Cultural critique and revolutionary goals play no part in this film, despite the clear indications of economic disparity and the emptiness of consumer culture. And yet, Mettler’s methodology, with all its idiosyncrasies and its highly personal frame of reference, offers valuable clues to the potential of cinematic practice in a fallen world. Like Benjamin, he proceeds by way of montage, speaking through others’ voices, to access another mode of being in the world, which is first and foremost, a mode of being among images, in the second nature of the cinema.


Given the three words of this enigmatic title, “Gambling” is in a sense the third term, the added value, the new word of this movie. Gambling also figures prominently in Benjamin’s theorization of modernity. Alongside the cinema, it represents a new form of experience specific to urban life and its forms of perception arising in the nineteenth century. The gambler appears in The Arcades Project alongside the prostitute, with “the same supremely sinful delight: to challenge fate in pleasure.”[8] The gambler and the prostitute indulge in threshold experiences where the revolutionary side of technology can be perceived. Benjamin’s theories of cinema and modernity are grounded in a bifurcated notion of experience, one form of which [Erfahrung] is lost and vanishing; the other [Erlebnis] holds revolutionary potential, although in the Paris Arcades Erlebnis can be glimpsed only within the decline of auratic experience. For Benjamin, the gambler represents a new form of experience [Erlebnis] attuned to the shocks of industrial technology, experience appropriate to the emptying out of time, “no longer relying on experience [Erfahrung] in the sense of accumulated wisdom, memory and tradition.”[9]

The gambler, Benjamin says, “cannot make much use of experience,” in the strict (defunct) sense, because “the process of starting all over again is the regulative idea of gambling, as it is of work for wages.”[10] In his reliance on luck and fate, the gambler inscribes an ancient wisdom into a modern technology, relying on his body for a new kind of experience, which is indeed, a form of pleasure, a high, an intoxicant and an epiphany. Hansen sums up Benjamin’s interest in gambling as

“a model of mimetic innervation for a collective which seems to have all but lost, literally, its senses; which lacks that bodily presence of mind that could yet turn that threatening future into a fulfilled ‘now.’”[11]

Returning to Gambling, Gods and LSD in light of this theory, the parallelism of the two projects is striking. Mettler’s film is indeed concerned with a collective that has lost its senses. This is the image of everyday life with which we are presented at every turn. Those who seek transcendence are immersed in a striking banality of routine and ugliness. From Benjamin’s interest in gambling it is evident that the gambling of Mettler’s title is a stand-in for cinephilia. If spontaneity and contingency are the terrain of the gambler, they are also the conditions that the travelling filmmaker is faced with. More than conditions, they are also his terms of reference and his field of play. Gambling, Gods and LSD is a film that flows beyond the movie theatre, and might be grasped in fragments, in passing, and not necessarily as a whole. Mettler has used some of the outtakes in his VJ practice, creating trance effects on the metropolitan dance floor. In this respect the film might correspond to Martin Roberts’ notion of a postcolonial World cinema that is part of the larger continuum of media.[12]

Cinephilia is the transcendent gesture of the film, which is indeed made as a gamble. Perhaps this is only possible for a critic to say, as the filmmaker and his backers presumably had more confidence in the film’s potential outcome than to credit blind luck with its success. Nevertheless, Mettler admits that the film was a hard sell, proposed without a script or even a focus, other than the four principles stated earlier and a list of hokey questions. It was sold as a process, and it is the practice of filmmaking itself that ends up holding the whole house of cards together.

To say that the film is a gamble is also to recognize the danger involved in collecting images in an apparently haphazard way. This is an essay film that ultimately has nothing to say, except that this is what I found on my travels. Mettler proposes that the search for meaning, transcendence and identity is everyone’s search and that the film might provoke the viewer to ask themselves where they are going as a human being. However, it is more likely that viewers are looking for a cinematic experience first, and if they are lucky, the film will offer them that nebulous, ephemeral experience of having watched a “good film.” Indeed, they are lucky that Mettler’s wager paid off. We are lucky that he happened to see that boy running along that riverbank on that day, and that the filmmaker was there and he kept that image, and put it at the end of his film.[13] The knowledge of this good fortune is precisely the epistemology of the travel film.

Cinephilia refers to the passion with which people go to movies and write about movies. As a passion, or a desire, it embraces the subjective aspect of film studies as a discipline, and film going as a (pre)occupation. At the same time, it indicates the excesses of the medium and its champions. With the on-going emergence of new electronic technologies — video, DVD, multimedia and the Internet — cinephilia refers not only to the lost object of cinema, but to the passion of the collector of images. Cinephilia is a term riddled with contradictions and ambiguity, conflating expertise with subjective pleasures. The cinephile, for Metz, is precariously balanced between the “imaginary” pleasure of losing oneself in the image and the “symbolic” knowledge of its machinery and its codes.[14]

Cinephilia is essentially allegorical. It embraces precisely that doubleness or distance that Benjamin identifies in allegory. This last long take of Mettler’s film is a shot of leaving in which he finally registers the absolute division between him and his Indian subject. The cinema provides a bridge of understanding, which is created entirely from the artifice of the image, of fantasy, of what Benjamin calls the “phantasmagoria.” Mettler’s film constitutes a phantasmagoria through which the space of the dreaming collective may be glimpsed. The woman who sees Jesus while watching TV in her condominium is united, through the film, with the throngs of Indians worshipping a priestess, and they in turn are linked to the entranced viewer of Mettler’s film.

(Continued: Notes)

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